In a packed hotel ballroom, the keynote speaker of the world’s biggest conference of children’s writers and illustrators asked the audience to write a letter to diversity. As a thousand notebooks opened, the room rippled with a mix of eagerness and reticence.
It was August 2018, four years after We Need Diverse Books launched, three after Lee & Low’s baseline survey on diversity among publishing professionals, and two after the establishment of the diversity-focused Twitter pitch event #DVPit. Diversity, it seemed, was the topic of every breakout session and panel. Even when the official topic was unrelated, someone would inevitably ask a question about representation, if only under their breath.
Are you saying I can’t write about characters from another culture?
Are publishers now employing some kind of quota, meaning my stories are judged not by the content of their character(s) but the color of my, and my protagonist’s, skin?
The editors and agents in attendance offered qualified assurances. Of course you can write outside your experience (write whatever you want!) but you have to put in the work. Research. Hire sensitivity readers. But before you go to all that trouble, ask yourself why you are writing about this. And most importantly, whether it is your story to tell.
As a white cis-gender heterosexual male, I must admit that I mentally pushed back against this check on my privilege. But as I sat in that packed ballroom filling with the sounds of scratching pens and turning pages, I began the process of owning that resistance, and moving past it.
Since that conference, studies have shown small increases in diversity in both characters and authors of picture books, and publishing industry demographics have remained the same as they were in the first survey 5 years prior.
But change takes time. Especially systemic change. Especially in a system as slow as publishing. And especially in a corner of that system that’s as drawn out as picture books. After all, manuscripts acquired in 2020 might not be on the shelves until 2023 – or later!
We all have a role to play. As writers, readers, consumers, mentors, caregivers.
I now have the privilege of working with Cardinal Rule Press as Acquisitions Editor. CRP’s mission, producing children’s literature that empowers children through timeless messages of hope, courage, and the Golden Rule, cannot be achieved without a concerted effort to embrace diversity, which is why the press has created a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee, enlisting a Diversity Consultant to formalize a plan that includes conducting an audit of its publications, creating surveys to better understand its customers and writers, and a concerted effort to reach diverse writers and illustrators via, among other things, Twitter pitch events.
While I do not recall exactly what I wrote in my notebook at that writer’s conference in 2018, I know that what I write would be different now that I have the privilege and responsibility of selecting manuscripts for publication.
I invite you to write your own letter. Go ahead. Grab a pen. Open your notebook. Start with the simple greeting.
Adam Blackman has worked in nonprofit management for over 15 years. As a writer, educator, and father, he loves picture books of all stripes (and spots) and is eager to find stories that will help children grow into kind, empathetic adults.